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Bees: A critical link

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CCD threatens food chain

By Mike Forster

A phenomenon which threatens our very food supply has, apparently, come to Bedford County.

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    Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, has been wiping out hives of honeybees in other parts of the country.  The causes of CCD are still being debated, but its impact is undoubtedly harsh.

     A colony that has been affected by CCD is essentially eliminated.  All that remains are some doomed young bees, the queen and some brood.

    Honeybees are a critical link in our food chain and are responsible for pollinating over 100 crops, including apples, alfalfa and berries, three crop-types that are crucial to Bedford agribusiness.

    Honeybees, in their quest for nectar, serve the additional function of pollinating crops.  Oftentimes, hives of bees are rented by farmers to be placed in their fields or orchards to perform pollination duties.

    Absent honeybees, some crops may be pollinated by wind or by other insects.  But, the effectiveness of those kinds of pollination does not begin to approach that of honeybees, and per acre yields drop dramatically.

    Part of the difficulty in solving CCD is that the cause of it is not definitively identified.  The latest thinking is that it is caused by a number of factors working in conjunction with one another.  These factors include:

    - crop pesticides, specifically neonicotinoids such as imidacloprid (IMD);

    - mites, specifically trachea or Varroa mites;

    - breeding practices, which have weakened bee lines;

    - nutritional deficiencies from weak pollen and nectar;

    - hive management practices, including excessive use of miticides; and

    - drought-like conditions we’ve experienced over the past couple of years.

    There are even some lines of reasoning that point at the use of cell phones, the introduction of genetically modified crops and the preponderance of satellites.  Others suspect that pollution has suppressed odors from plants, which then keep the nectar sources masked from bees.        The IMD question is a valid one.  According to a 2006 study study by the USDA, there were 15 states that had not experienced CCD.  Of those 15, all states that had any substantial bee populations did not allow the use of IMD.

    Of greater interest, there are 26 states with known cases of CCD that also allow the use of IMD.

    Virginia is one of those states.

    While it has not been conclusively proven that IMD causes CCD, it is hard to ignore its presence in locations that have experienced it.

    It is quite possible that IMD is a factor in setting the hives up for their demise.  It, along with mites and low grade foodstuffs, put the bees in a weakened state, and the bees are unable to make it back to the hive from the forage.  Hence, the death of the colony.

    In the case of apples, though, the role of insecticide must be questioned.  “We use insecticide only after the blooms have gone,” said Walter Gross, owner of Gross’ Orchard, near the Peaks of Otter.

    What Gross claims makes sense.  An orchard owner is seeking to protect fruit, not flowers.  And, once the blossoms are gone, there is no source for nectar.  Honeybees would have no interest in the orchards and wouldn’t be exposed to any pesticides.

    Another factor clouding the issue is that there are some who are using CCD as a soapbox to push an organic farming agenda.

    Whatever the cause turns out to be, keepers and colonies are suffering.

    Ben Shrader is a prominent beekeeper in Bedford County.  Once the owner of 40 hives, he has seen colonies die off to the point where he now has only 10 hives remaining.

    The vast majority of the Shrader’s losses appear to be the result of CCD-like symptoms.  Three years ago, Shrader sold over 2,000 pounds of honey.  This past year, he sold less than 300 pounds.

    That’s bad for those of us who enjoy honey.  But, the reduction in Shrader’s ability to provide pollination services is a larger cause for concern for the man on the street.

    Shrader had hives located at Skinnell’s Orchard, near Routes 24 and 43 in Bedford County.  Those hives have been wiped out.

    Carlton Skinnell, owner of the orchard, has been lucky.  In spite of the absence of Shrader’s bees, trees this year are full of young fruit.  “We haven’t seen a difference,” said Skinnell.  “We have a lot of peaches and we’ll have a good apple crop.”

    Skinnell pointed to the wind, bumble bees and an unidentified smaller bee for this year’s success.

    Other farmers, certainly, will not encounter such good fortune in the absence of honeybees.

    Meanwhile, Shrader’s equipment sits piled up in the barn.  “It’s hard to get fire in your belly when you buy packages of bees only to see them die off,” he said.

    Statewide, CCD could further depress an already low population of honeybees.  According to State Apiarist Keith Tignor, the number of hives in the state is currently between 25,000 and 30,000.  That total is down from a high mark in the early 1980s of 90,000.

    That number only reflects domesticated bees.  Dr. Richard Fell, professor of entomology at Virginia Tech, points out that few feral colonies of bees remain in the state.  Fell estimates that feral bee colonies numbered about 80,000 three decades ago.

    That loss of three-fourths of Virginia hives was caused primarily by the varroa mite (in the 1990s) and the tracheal mite (in the 1980s).

    Additionally, winter colony losses have increased.  According to Tignor, before 1980, a 5 percent loss over the winter was common.  These days, that number hovers around 30 percent.

    In other words, CCD is another body blow to bees that have suffered decades’ worth of weakening.

    Tignor noted that one Franklin County beekeeper saw his entire operation wiped out by CCD-like symptoms.  He also stated that most bee operations that have been impacted are those that fall under the heading of migratory pollinators:  those that follow the nectar flows, renting our their bees for pollination purposes.

    “We’re not seeing it with hobbyists,” said Tignor.

    Tignor pointed to several steps being taken by the state, including grants to encourage beekeeping and the procurement of equipment.

    He also noted that many classes are being held to introduce people to beekeeping fundamentals.

    Such a class was recently conducted in Bedford, which drew 22 registrations, according to its organizer, Ann Zudekoff.

    The course covered topics such as the history of beekeeping, pests and predators, the biology of the hive, hive management and a year in the life of a hive.

    The culmination of the class was the introduction of a colony to a hive.  Jeff Jenner, a local beekeeper, walked the class through the actual movement of a package of bees into its new home.

    Doug and Lucy Overstreet, students in the class, seemed ready to take to the world of beekeeping after the demo.  “I love local honey and want to produce it myself,” said Doug. 

    “I raise a garden for market,” stated Lucy.  “This way we’ll have our own pollination.”

    To overcome the challenges ahead, it will be imperative that more hobbyists take to the hive.  Virginia Tech’s Fell said, “The only reason we have (as many as we still do) is that beekeepers keep (introducing) colonies.”

    The bee hobbyist may well be the one to help take up the slack.

    Our very food supply may depend on it.